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As Ireland Moves UN Lawyer O'Brien, Who Refused Press Qs, Successor More Open?

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, January 16 -- During Patricia O'Brien's tenure as the UN's chief lawyer, she has repeatedly refused to answer questions ranging from the UN's introduction of cholera into Haiti through the detention of UN staff by Sri Lanka to the right of the Palestinians to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

  The most recent times Inner City Press has asked that Ms. O'Brien even take if not answer questions, it has been told "that will not happen." Her silence has been complete, unlike her predecessor as UN chief counsel, Nicolas Michel.

  Michel used to hold sit down press conferences, for example about the Hariri Tribunal in Lebanon; he granted interviews even on the topic of his receipt of a housing subsidy from the Swiss government.

  O'Brien by contrast refused to explain her ruling effectively killing off the Security Council reforms proposed by the so-called Small Five.

  After a formal claim was filed about the UN's introduction of cholera into Haiti, UN officials started refusing to answer even about safeguards for the future, referring all questions to O'Brien's Office of Legal Affairs. But O'Brien never answered.

  In 2009, when she came for a press conference about treaties, Inner City Press asked her about the legal dimension of two UN system staff members who remained incarcerated in Sri Lanka after what they say was government torture. Video here, from Minute 42:01.

 The Treaty Event booklet distributed at the event listed the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN and the Convention on the Safety of UN and Associated Personnel. Sri Lanka has acceded to both of them, during the General Assembly meetings in 2003. But are they being complied with and enforced?

 "I am not here to speak about enforcement" of the Conventions, Ms. O'Brien said. She referred to the UN's ironically titled "depository" role, and that she also advised the Secretary General on the "application of treaties."

 But where do these interpretations go? In Sri Lanka, the country head for the UN made belated statements about the disappeared staff that many thought ignored the government's responsibility under the Conventions. Amin Awad did not assert that the staffers were immune, at least within the scope of their work for the UN, but only that the government should inform the UN of the detention.

 "We are not going to get into interpreting specific provisions," Ms. O'Brien said.

  There were and are also questions about the UN's involvement in the Cambodia genocide tribunal, Somalia piracy enforcement, policing the (further) abuse of the UN's name, including for commercial gain, and of the UN's and OLA's commitment to freedom of speech and of the press.

  But Patricia O'Brien refused to answer any of them.

  And so it is good news for the UN, at least for its transparency, that on January 16 it was announced that "Patricia O’Brien, who now serves as legal counsel and under-secretary general at the United Nations secretariat in New York, has been nominated as Ireland’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva."

  (Inner City Press tries to be charitable as officials leave the UN. But it difficult, from a media perspective, for a stonewalling official.)

  Now if only this type of removal from the UN by re-assignment by home country would occur from another UN Under Secretary General who refuses to answer questions, Herve Ladsous of France.

  While censoring and decaying UNCA never did anything about the refusal of O'Brien to hold a press conference, or Ladsous to take questions without discrimination, the new Free UN Coalition for Access is focused on these and related issues.

  Incoming USGs, for Legal Affairs and any other post, should be required to commit to hold press conferences and answer questions, FUNCA proposes. They are paid with public money. Watch this site.

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